9 Aug 18

The Raw Side of Electric Vehicles

In spite of their growing popularity, electric vehicles are often strongly criticised, in particular because of their batteries. As a consequence various actors in the sector have started minding the raw side of the EV.

The most frequent concerns relate to the raw materials of the battery, cobalt in particular being highly contentious. Besides being a finite and poisonous material, most of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where human rights and the environment are often not being respected.

When it comes to lithium, the impact on natural water resources, agriculture and on local communities is controversial as well. The world’s biggest lithium reserves are located in the salt lakes in the Andes of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, where local communities are disadvantaged by a few big mining companies.

3 Rs

Nevertheless, the sustainability of EV batteries can be improved. First of all, the amount of used raw materials per battery can be reduced, by enhanced battery technologies, or opting for an EV with a smaller range. Alternative battery technologies or hydrogen for example, can even make this kind of raw materials obsolete.

Secondly, re-using EV batteries can reduce the need for mining. Audi and various other car manufacturers are researching second-life projects for EV batteries. "Even after being used in the car, the batteries still have a large amount of their capacity left," explains David Kervyn of Audi. One of the projects consists of converting old batteries into stationary energy storage systems, the first of which are already in the test phase.

Ultimately, recycling batteries and recovering the raw materials instead of mining new ones can be a third way to reduce the amount of mined raw materials.

Cleaning up the Cobalt Chain

Nevertheless, before these strategies will apply on large-scale, new materials will still need to be mined. Therefore, cleaning up the mining process remains crucial as well. Recently, some players of the battery and automotive sector, such as Volkswagen, Audi and Umicore, have joined forces in the Global Battery Alliance of the World Economic Forum. 

Together, they strive to address the high human and environmental toll of battery production. The addressed materials are cobalt, lithium, graphite, and nickel. Besides the extraction process, the Alliance also wants to stimulate recycling and innovation. 

"Umicore joined the Alliance from the early days," says Marjolein Scheers of Umicore. Because they are aware of the risks in certain parts of the cobalt supply chain, the company has created its own Sustainable Procurement Framework for Cobalt, which has evolved into a framework to address specific risks linked to unethical mining practices such as child labour and poor health and safety conditions. Additionally, Umicore operates a pilot recycling plant for EV batteries, in which copper, nickel, cobalt, and lithium are being recovered to complement primary supply. 

Sustainable Fleet Management

In the meantime, fleet managers already might be looking for more sustainable options. Patricia Friedel, Fleet manager of Johnson & Johnson says she is aware of the risks of the supply chain of EV batteries. "That is why Johnson & Johnson is looking for other mobility solutions as well," she explains. The company has set up various pilot projects, of which electrification is only one possible solution; e-bikes are among the other options. "Ultimately, by October 2018, we want to have developed a new strategy, containing several mobility solutions."

Authored by: Fien Van den steen